Monday, November 28, 2011

Auxilio! The Mexican Dropout Rate

The New York Times published an article about the appalling dropout rate of Mexican high school students in New York City, which is the worst among Mexicans in the country. The numbers are horrible:

If the article is sad and shocking, the comments section is terrifying. So many hostile comments comparing the ignorant Mexicans with the progress-driven Asians, classic comments about sending everybody back, and Americans getting "the dregs", instead, I guess, of Nobel Prize winners.
Anybody who thinks that the NYT is only read by bleeding-heart liberals is in for a rude awakening. I was so offended by the hatred and hostility of the majority of the comments, that I chimed in:
If you come from a country where poverty makes work, not education, the most significant social value, and you yourself had nothing but an elementary school education, if at all, it is hard for you to understand why education is so important. You place a much higher value on work, so that the family can survive. Unfortunately, many of the hardworking Mexican parents who come here are victims of these circumstances. If they barely had an education in their native language, how can they be expected to master two? How can they really comprehend what education means?
If Mexico better educated its people and gave them more opportunities, there wouldn't be millions of Mexicans trying to make a better life for their families in this country. But it is in the interest of the ruling Mexican elites to keep Mexicans poor and ignorant. The government has to deal with millions less people, and wages can be kept miserly, all because the majority of Mexicans can't really afford to have an education.
Don't blame the immigrants. And don't blame bilingualism. Bilingualism can be a solution if it helps Mexican parents learn English, so they can participate in the education of their children.
John, 23: these people are not the dregs. Without their hard work and cheap labor, who else would Americans like you exploit? 

John is a commenter who thinks that Americans are getting the dregs (that is, Mexicans) of the cream of the crop of immigrants.
Let me add that Mexico has a free education system ranging from elementary school to a postgraduate degree, but even a free education is something that many Mexicans cannot afford.
Twenty years ago, as I started my career in Hispanic advertising in New York, our agency was commissioned to create a public service campaign to address the issue of the Hispanic dropout rate in the city. In those days it wasn't yet about Mexicans, but still more than 50% of Hispanic students did not finish high school. We created a powerful campaign (TV, subway and bus shelter posters, radio) based on the poor prospects that young Hispanics faced if they did not continue their high school studies onto college. It was meant to shock them and their parents into thinking seriously about finishing school. It never saw the light of day because of squabbling between the different well-intentioned but politically correct social agencies that were supporting it, among them the United Federation of Teachers and I don't remember which Hispanic groups. We were heartbroken. We all thought it would have made a big splash.
The numbers among other graduating Hispanics seem to have risen since then, but the Mexican immigrants to the city are relative latecomers and something must be done to shake them out of their belief that work, not studying, is the most important value they can instill in their children.
The reasons for dropping out of high school here are many, but key are: an illegal status and fear by parents of deportation plus lack of serious opportunities for illegals, and lack of education and English skills by parents, who do not participate in the education of their children simply because they can't. I have always maintained that Hispanics who come to this country need to learn English. In fact, the big Spanish TV and radio channels, which have absolutely no educational or cultural programming, could include bilingual or English literacy programs for adults, if, as they claim, they are so invested in the well-being of the community. Hispanics are not going to desert them the minute they learn English. Why wouldn't they keep enjoying their favorite programs in Spanish?
Many of the NYT's commenters have a very negative perception of bilingualism. I don't think that having Spanish media or bilingual communications in Spanish is the only thing that keeps immigrants from learning the language. It helps of course, but bilingualism is something to be desired by everyone. In the anti-immigrant hysteria currently sweeping this country, defending bilingualism has become tantamount to invoking Satan, but speaking more than one language is always an advantage to anyone, including Americans who rely on the fact that their language dominates the world, and thus can't see why it is desirable to speak something other than English.
Bilingualism is a two way street, and just as Spanish speakers are aided by communications in Spanish, by the same token they can learn English through bilingual education and immersion. What keeps Mexican parents, who are key figures in their children's educational attainment, from learning English is their inexperience with learning in general. Learning a new language is already very hard for adults, and many Mexicans are at an even bigger disadvantage because of their extremely deficient educational level, which is a national disgrace. This, unfortunately, is the perfect storm that the article speaks about. Their neglect of education needs to be changed into an appreciation of education as a value of the highest priority.
Education makes you smarter. Let's say things are so bad that you may still only find a job washing dishes: if you speak two languages and you are educated, you will rise faster than someone who doesn't. This is not a hard message to understand. A strong work ethic is a great value to have, but education provides a wider net of opportunities and a true chance at progress. Imagine: with their hardworking ethos, plus a strong value in education, there is no limit to what Mexicans (as well as anybody else) can do.

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